PENDLETON, Ore. -- A federal agency has sent two investigators to the site of an Eastern Oregon tour bus crash that killed nine people.
The National Transportation Safety Board said Monday it would look into the conditions on Interstate 84 and the guardrail the tour bus crashed through Sunday morning. The agency will also will examine the operations of the Vancouver, British Columbia, bus carrier.
The stretch of rural Oregon interstate where the tour bus crashed is so notorious that state transportation officials have published a specific advisory warning of its dangers.
Nine people were killed and more than two dozen injured when the charter bus veered out of control around 10:30 a.m. Sunday on snow- and ice-covered lanes of Interstate 84 in eastern Oregon, according to the Oregon State Police.
The bus crashed near the start of a 7-mile section of road that winds down a hill. It came to rest at the bottom of a snowy slope, landing beaten and battered but upright with little or no debris visible around the crash site.
"Most of the patients had been ejected from the bus on the way down," said Lt. Steve Brost with the Pendleton Fire Department in an interview with KATU News. "I've been a firefighter for 20 years and this is the first time I've seen anything like this."
The East Oregonian said it spoke with two South Korean passengers, ages 16 and 17. Both said through a translator that they were seated near the rear of the bus when it swerved a few times, hit the guardrail and flipped. They described breaking glass and seeing passengers pinned by their seats as the bus slid down the hill. Both said that they feared for their lives.
The paper said that the teens, one of whom injured a knee and the other suffered a broken collarbone, were staying at a hotel arranged by the Red Cross.
More than a dozen rescue workers descended the hill and used ropes to help retrieve people from the wreckage in freezing weather. The bus driver was among the survivors, but had not yet spoken to police because of the severity of the injuries the driver had suffered.
Lt. Gregg Hastings said the bus crashed along the west end of the Blue Mountains, and west of an area called Deadman Pass. The area is well known locally for its hazards, and the state transportation department advises truck drivers that "some of the most changeable and severe weather conditions in the Northwest" can lead to slick conditions and poor visibility. Drivers are urged to use "extreme caution and defensive driving techniques," and warned that snow and black ice are common in the fall through the spring.
46 people were aboard the bus, according to Larry Blanc, a spokesman for St. Anthony Hospital in nearby Pendleton. 14 of those aboard remain at St. Anthony, one in serious condition. Seven were discharged Sunday and are in the care of the Red Cross.
Blanc says 16 people were sent to other hospitals in the region, including Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.
Blanc did not elaborate on the nature of the injuries but told KATU News the hospital brought in additional staff to handle the rush of patients and did a lot of X-ray imaging.
"We were able to bring in the amount of physicians and nurses needed to handle the situation even though we are a small, 25-bed critical access hospital," said Blanc.
I-84 is a major east-west highway through Oregon that follows the Columbia River Gorge.
Umatilla County Emergency Manager Jack Remillard said the bus was owned by Mi Joo travel in Vancouver, B.C., and state police said the bus was en route from Las Vegas to Vancouver.
A woman who answered the phone at a listing for the company confirmed with The Associated Press that it owned the bus and said it was on a tour of the Western U.S. She declined to give her name.
A bus safety website run by the U.S. Department of Transportation said Mi Joo Tour & Travel has six buses, none of which have been involved in any accidents in at least the past two years.
The bus crash was the second fatal accident in Oregon on Sunday morning. A 69-year-old man died in a rollover accident on I-84, about 30 miles west of where the bus accident took place.
A spokesman for the American Bus Association said buses carry more than 700 million passengers a year in the United States.
"The industry as a whole is a very safe industry," said Dan Ronan of the Washington, D.C.,-based group. "There are only a handful of accidents every year. Comparatively speaking, we're the safest form of surface transportation."
Sunday's Oregon bus crash comes more than two months after another chartered tour bus veered off a highway in October in northern Arizona, killing the driver and injuring dozens of passengers who were mostly tourists from Asia and Europe. Authorities say the driver likely had a medical episode.